Egypt’s ACN success emphasizes its strongly nationalistic legacy

Egypt’s sixth ACN title cementing its position as the dominant African soccer power underscores the success of its vibrant and fiercely competitive domestic league. While successful Western African talent is leaving flooding the higher profile and more lucrative European leagues, diluting the domestic game. In comparison, the Egyptian players stand out for their seeming reluctance to abandon their domestic league, even as many are offered attractive deals to do exactly that by well to do foreign clubs.
Mohammad Aboutreika might be the most courted African player not to leave his club, Al Ahly, as he continues to set an example with his commitment to his club and country. On the strength of his incandescent play, the Cairo club came third in the Club World Championships two years ago, the first African club to progress so deep. He also led Al Ahly to its fifth CAF title, another record. Soon after that he was nominated for the African player of the year award competing with six others including Samuel Eto’o, Barca’s talisman and Didier Drogba, Chelsea’s standout who led their scoring in their successful title repeat. He was rejected in the final balloting setting off a firestorm in Egypt. Eto’o who had not played any meaningful minutes with his frequent injuries sailed through to the final stage before Drogba was eventually declared the winner.
Critics saw this as a sellout undermining a true hero whose accomplishments shone a light on a successful and relatively unknown African league as opposed to candidates playing for European brands which already enjoy global recognition. In essence, Aboutreika was the sort of player the CAF should be championing, given its African pan nationalist origins and its founding mission of unifying African soccer.
The fierce reaction to Aboutreika’s rejection echoes Egypt’s unique place in Africa and its abbreviated colonial history as compared to generations of rule in other African countries by Western European powers. These colonial associations are being turned to an advantage by clubs like ASEC Mimosas which feeds the exodus of Eboue, Toure, Zokora, Kalou and other players from its from youth academy to the European leagues.
Egypt has not benefited from these colonial associations, in fact, actively spurning them through a mix of nationalistic ambition and suspicion of Western motives. Britian’s brief interlude in Egypt collapsed as its army met a series of sustained and fierce resistance from the citizenry. In 1952, Farouk I, a pro- British monarch was removed in a coup led by Gamel Abdel Nasser who went onto become Egypt’s Prime Minister. And Britain’s bluff was called when Nasser sought to successfully nationalize the Suez Canal. Nasser’s forceful articulation of pan-Arabism drew them inexorably closer to the political and ideological center of the Arab world after years of uneasy co-existence. His feat wresting the Suez from the hands of Britain, England, and Israel made him a hero from Amman to Baghdad.
While most African countries were still struggling with the effects of colonialism, Egypt was sharpening its nationalistic credentials, becoming the leader of the Arab League, seeking common ground with countries like India and Yugoslavia during the Cold War, creating an independence from NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries, even at it moved towards Soviet style heavy industrialization, educational, and agrarian reforms. Egypt has benefited from relative stability, a largely self sufficient economy, and making peace with Israel. West Africa has seen its share of countries torn apart by harsh ethnic strife, warring neighbours, and burdened by crippling debt.
Such strong national ideals which informed Egypt’s place in the post colonial world were also at work in the formation of Al Ahly in 1907, a student soccer club, whose membership led an active resistance to the occupation. It was the first club for Egyptians under British rule. Zamalek’s original character as a club for expatriates changed under the tide of nationalism. By 1930 it had expelled its European membership.
The success of the Egyptian league clubs in the CAF competitions winning 11 titles with Al Ahly and Zamalek leading with five each underscores its strength compared to other African leagues as it continues to retain its talent. This despite the fact that its players are not well paid and the Egyptian league continues to be plagued with old stadiums and indifferent organizations. Its viability depends on a combination of government subsidies and private entrepreneurship.
In the end Hassan Shehata did not need EPL stars like Mido or Ghaly to win the ACN. Mohammad Zidan, the Hamburger SV striker was an exception but got no favours for returning as a star. He had to prove that he was part of the national team just like the rest of the players.

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